This post is part of the Workshop 101 series, designed to teach the nuts and bolts of Reading and Writing Workshop. You can view the entire series here.
You finish your ten-minute minilesson. Your students, inspired to begin the day’s work, look at you expectantly. You say the words: “Off you go!” They spring to action, settling quickly into favorite spots and cracking open their books. When you look around the room, you see a sea of young people with their noses in their books, silently poring over the words. You’ve done it: they’re reading! They’re engaged! …Now what?
It’s tempting in a moment like this to just let your students continue reading uninterrupted. It feels somehow wrong to stop them from doing the very thing we’re trying to instill in them–a love of reading. However, research tells us two things about nurturing passionate, proficient readers: One, that students need extended amounts of time to be actively reading books that they choose and that they can read accurately; and two, that students need teacher support during their independent work in order for them to grow as readers.
Workshop teaching enables you to meet both of these criteria. Students are given the bulk of the workshop hour (35-45 minutes) to read (or write, in the case of Writing Workshop) authentically, from books they have chosen, that are within-reach for each student. Independent work time also happens to be when the teacher really springs to action. I think of this as the “heart” of the workshop.
The workshop teacher is responsive, flexible, and expert at differentiated instruction. He comes to each student and meets their individual needs, whether or not they relate to the day’s minilesson (and most often, they do not). As the students are working quietly, the teacher is meeting with individual students and sometimes small groups of students to provide extra, small bursts of instruction. These bursts come in the form of “conferences” and “small group work.”
A conference is a short, one-on-one conversation between a student and the teacher. During a conference, the teacher listens as the student describes the work she’s doing, observes the student doing the work, and then gives a compliment and a teaching point to help lift the student’s work to the next level. Most often, I come to conferences a completely blank slate, with no agenda. I try not to have a preformed notion of what the conversation will entail. Instead, I let the student and her work speak for themselves. As the student is describing what she’s working on, and I watch her work, I am formulating the next step in my mind: what compliment I can give the student to reinforce positive work, and what the hardest-hitting teaching point is that I can give. Conferring requires a teacher to have a firm grasp of literacy skill development and the different grade level standards. Many teachers carry a copy of learning progressions or state standards with them as they confer to help support them in their work.
Small Group Work
Sometimes I will notice that multiple students are exhibiting the same habits/skills/needs as readers and writers. When this happens, I gather the small group of students to deliver the teaching point to all of them at once. This is called a “strategy group”–a small group of students who are being taught the same strategy to help raise the level of their work. Another type of small group that I might gather during independent work time is a Guided Reading group. I usually meet with this type of group when I have a small group of readers who are all approaching the next reading level and need a little push to get over the hump. We talk about the challenges common to the new kinds of books they’re ready for, and read a short text at that level together over a number of days. I will say that my school has time set aside for Guided Reading outside of the Reading Workshop, so I tend to use our independent work time for conferring and strategy groups. Other workshop teachers do more Guided Reading within their workshop.
The frequency at which I meet with my different students depends on the amount of support they need. I meet with students who need more support more often (daily, for my students who need the most), and with students who need less support less often (but AT LEAST once a week, preferably more). During a typical workshop lesson, I can usually confer with 3 students individually and 2 small groups.
There’s a lot more to say about conferring with students–What do you say? How do you take notes? How do you manage the rest of the class? I’ll be answering all of those questions and more in a future post all about conferring!